Pavol Rankov



(an excerpt)
The clock dial on a shelf above the table showed 8:30pm, but it was still light outside. We were lying in my narrow bed under a wide-open window, the sounds of the city streaming in right alongside the damp air of a June evening. A dog barked briefly, but ferociously; an old tram screeched through a turn; someone kept disagreeing with someone else, and the latter called him stupid; the dog barked again, this time more calmly; a moment later a young woman’s infectious laughter rang out, another young woman’s drunken giggling weaved into it, followed by a young man’s hoarse laughter and voices yelling over one another; they were probably students, probably partying, probably on their way from one bar to the next. Perhaps we knew them; all we would have had to do was lean out the window and yell for them to wait because we wanted to join them. But we didn’t want to. We were lying there naked, supple and drowsy, more satisfied by the fact that we had finally done it than by the act itself.

We felt happy together, but it was an unsettled, fleeting sort of happiness, weighed down by fear of the unspoken, and by a foreboding of something indefinite and unfamiliar that could complicate our relationship. We weren’t in the mood to party with our classmates because we felt a pressing need to continue our noontime conversation. As soon as our bodies had stopped making love, that great boulder rolled between us again, landed right in our bed, and impatiently waited to see what we would do with it.

“Did you really write that when you were twelve?” I asked.

“I did. But yesterday when I was transcribing it I made a few small corrections. What did I correct, you ask? Being a freshly minted Bachelor of Arts in General Linguistics and Theory of Communication with a minor in Art Studies, I simply couldn’t restrain my professional impulse. But I only made stylistic changes, three or four of them, perhaps five or six, at most ten or eleven. And I added commas. A few words needed to be changed, and a few sentences moved around. But the content is the same.”

“Finally! You’ve made excellent progress, admitting that the text was edited by an adult, Marek,” I said, resolved to keep asking questions until we cleared the air completely.

“So what happened to Uncle Ivan and Aunt Eva?”

“I didn’t find out about that until later, from my parents. The house had burned to the ground that night. Their burnt bodies were found in the ashes.”

“And had they been,” I hesitated before saying the word, “murdered?”

“The exact cause of the fire was never confirmed, in part because the house had been destroyed. By the time the firemen got there, the fire was starting to die down on its own.”

“Did the villagers not try to put it out? Every town has a volunteer fire brigade.”

“Skalka has nothing. The neighbors claimed that by the time they saw the fire, it had already spread so far that there was no point in trying to put it out. They just kept the flames from jumping onto neighboring buildings.”

“But you still think it was arson and murder, don’t you?”

“I don’t know. You read what I can remember. The whole thing seems unreal. I was locked up at a psychiatric clinic for a couple of weeks. I didn’t attend the funeral; I’ve never seen their graves. I would have probably been too scared to go back to that village anyway.” Marek exhaled slowly and then sadly added: “I still would be.”

“Be what?”

“Too scared to go to Skalka. I’ve been traumatized for life. It’s a neurosis I plan to nurture.”

I had to kiss him, my poor mysterious boy. It was as if he had been waiting for nothing else.

We didn’t eat dinner until close to midnight.

“Can we talk about it while we’re eating?” I asked.

With his mouth full he nodded, and after he swallowed, he added: “If we can talk about it while we’re having sex, we can talk about it while we’re eating. The need to eat and the need to procreate are on the same level in Maslow’s hierarchy.”

It was Marek’s typical way of connecting two moods and two topics: light and heavy, psychological theories and his own life. I liked it, but some people found conversations with him disturbing and confusing.

“Darling, I didn’t think we were dealing with the need to procreate here, but with the need for love, relationships, and belonging. And Maslow places those needs two levels higher.”

“A clear lack of female empathy for male needs,” Marek said. “What I was really looking for was validation and recognition. So while I was operating on level four, my dear Tália, you were stuck on level three.”

“So how did you to survive?” I asked, dead serious again.

“I don’t remember. I couldn’t even tell you whether I survived a pogrom or a fire. A passing driver found me the next morning. I was sitting in the middle of the road in a forest a few miles outside the village. I have no recollection of that either. They didn’t get a thing out of me at the clinic. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, including my parents. Honestly though, I don’t think I remembered anything. The doctor handed me a pen and paper so that I could write down what I knew. He must have thought that I didn’t want to say it out loud, that it was simply a communication issue. But he was wrong; it was a memory issue. My memory cuts out before the fire, and picks up again with indistinct figures coming out of a fog at the psychiatric clinic.”

“Do you admit the possibility that the fire could have been caused by faulty wiring? You, a twelve-year-old boy, saved yourself, but you were frightened, and in shock you ran away and can’t remember any of it. That’s not out of the question, is it?”

Marek cut a tomato and pushed half of it toward me with the tip of the knife.

“You have an instinctive fear of crime, like everyone else, ” he said with a smirk.

“I do believe you, Marek. I was just asking whether it was possible, hypothetically.”

“It is, and I’d love to think it’s true. My parents chose to go with that possibility too – a boy shocked by the terrifying experience of flames that nearly took his life suffers amnesia, and his neurotic brain replaced some of his memories with fantasy. The police also found it to be the most convenient explanation. Faulty wiring or spontaneous combustion, negligent homeowners, a poor boy traumatized for life. Period. Case closed. As guardians of my cousin Jonáš, who was the closest relative of the deceased, my parents received the results of the investigation, which said that remnants of a gas canister had been found by the entrance door. Do you know what conclusion they reached? That my uncle had bought gasoline for his lawnmower and left it by the door. The gasoline mysteriously exploded. The acts of arson and murder did not take place, as former Minister of the Interior Kaliňák would have said. In the end, everyone went with that explanation, including the doctors at the clinic – it was the most likely, and therefore the most believable.”

I leaned over the table, took Marek’s face in my hands, and looked straight into his eyes.

“But you’re convinced that the villagers set the house on fire in order to kill your relatives.”

“I’m not convinced of anything. I don’t trust my memory, which tells me that the entire village gathered in front of the house that night. They had come to do something bad. I can still see the whole thing. A tribal ritual.”

“Maybe they spared you, because at the last minute they realized you weren’t Jonáš.”

“Or that girl put in a good word for me, you know, Jonáš’s ‘relationship’.”

My head was starting to hurt from it all.

“Let’s go take a shower, darling,” I said.

I fell asleep quickly but woke up in the middle of the night. The things I had learned were not conducive to peaceful sleep. Marek and I were pressed up against each other, back to back, and our backs were drenched with sweat. My poor mysterious boy was quietly snoring at regular intervals, grunting like a little pig. I found his snoring attractive. Simultaneously I was aware of the fact that it was a particularly foolish thought of a naïve, immature woman in love. Not a woman, a girl, an adolescent. I closed the window halfway because my sweaty back was getting cold.

Then I went to get a glass of water. In the meantime Marek rolled over onto his back, so there was no room left for me in bed. Despite everything I had learned from and about him over the last few hours, my feelings hadn’t changed; there was no hint of pity in them, no worries, no doubt. After I read his recollections I did have a moment of hesitation, but now I regained my… What should I call it? I regained my confidence in him. I knew he wasn’t lying; he was convinced that what he had told me was true, even though his memories were probably distorted, and his mind had produced a fable in response to extreme shock when he had to fight for his life. Marek wasn’t lying, but maybe he was mistaken, although that wasn’t the right way to describe it either, because he subjectively believed his hallucination. The important thing was that during the three years I had known him he had never experienced anything like this again; on the contrary, he was highly rational and calm. My poor mysterious boy was certainly not mentally disturbed, I concluded definitively.

I knew that right before Marek came to study in Olomouc, his parents had died in a car crash, but he never told me any of the details. In light of what he had been through as a child, I was coming to understand how terrifying the death of his parents must have been, how much it must have amplified the prior trauma from the death of his aunt and uncle. In fact, it was admirable how well he handled himself in everyday life, how happy and carefree he seemed to be. I began to see his absurd dark humor as an ironic defense against fate. Maybe there was a hint of sarcasm in his attitude toward the world, but I had never known him to be insensitive toward others; he was more apt to make fun of himself and his own misfortune.

All of a sudden, though, I couldn’t stop wondering about the circumstances of his parents’ death. Why did he not want to talk about it? Did he believe that their accident, which happened many years later, was somehow connected with what he considered to be the ritual murder of his mother’s sister and her husband? I had to ask him about it at once.

I caressed his face, but it didn’t wake him up.

“Marek, darling,” I whispered into his ear insistently.

He mumbled something, barely opened his eyes, and went right back to sleep. I grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him as hard as I could.

“What?” He woke up with a start.

“I have to talk to you, Marek!”

He sat up in bed, disoriented. He had to keep propping himself up with his arms so as not to collapse back onto his pillow, and struggled to keep his eyes open.

“I need to ask you whether your parents’ accident is connected in any way to the deaths of Ivan and Eva.”

He gave me a confused look, as if he didn’t understand what I was asking, or who I was. A moment later his head slid back onto the pillow, and he said with a sigh:

“Yes, it is. I’ll tell you about it in the morning. Now come back to bed, Tália.”

He rolled onto his side, freeing half of the bed for me, which was a clear signal that he was done talking for now.

I squeezed in next to him. I didn’t like that even something as serious as his parents’ tragic death didn’t manage to rouse him. The thought that ran through my head was that there might be something cynical in him after all. What if he was heartless? His fate could have made him so. Still, no one has the right to be heartless. How could he keep sleeping after I reminded him about the death of his mother and father? My musings about this important problem were slowly, but relentlessly, overtaken by sleep.
PAVOL RANKOV (b. 1964) is a professor of library and information science at Comenius University in Bratislava, his alma mater. He made his literary debut in 1995 with a collection of short stories entitled S odstupom času, which won the Slovak Ivan Krasko Prize. Since then he has written several more short story collections and two novels. His first novel, Stalo sa prvého septembra (alebo inokedy), was published in 2008 and won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2009 and the Angelus Central European Literature Award in 2014. His most recent novel is Miesta, čo nie sú na mape (Places That Are Not on the Map, 2017).

About the Translator:

MAGDALENA MULLEK translates from her native Slovak. Her translations have appeared in The Dirty Goat, Alchemy, Ozone Park, TWO LINES, Words Without Borders, Slovak Literary Review, and B O D Y. She was one of the translators of the Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature. Her latest project is the anthology of contemporary Slovak prose, Into the Spotlight, published by Three String Books. Magdalena lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and their daughter.